Former Professor, Playwright Alfred Dies

"The Professor" has died.

William Alfred, a playwright and Lowell professor of the humanities emeritus, died last Thursday in his Cambridge home on Athens Street. He was 76.

Known for caring about students on a personal level, Alfred was nick-named "the Professor" during his tenure at Harvard by his beloved pupils.

"I think preeminently he brought generosity of spirit and time to undergraduates," said Professor of English Robert S. Brustein, who is also artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre. "He was simply a man who extended himself in ways that I have never seen University professors do.

"His devotion to students was without parallel," he added. Indeed, after his retirement, Alfred continued to mentor one undergraduate each year.

While at Harvard, Alfred's contributions to the drama world were just as large as his contributions within the Ivory Tower.

He wrote "Hogan's Goat," a play about turn-of-the-century Brooklyn-Irish politics, which served as an off-Broadway launching ground for Faye Dunaway in 1966.

He also influenced such actors as Stockard Channing '65, John A. Lithgow '67 and Tommy Lee Jones '69 during his tenure at Harvard.

Alfred served as a member and chair of theStanding Committee on Dramatics, the board thatoversees the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club andthe courses in theater offered for credit.

Alfred, a Brooklyn native, studied at BrooklynCollege before serving in the Army in World WarII. He earned master's and doctoral degrees inEnglish from Harvard.

Upon graduation, he joined the Harvard Facultyas a professor of English literature in 1954 andbecame a full professor in 1963. He received anamed chair in 1980, retiring 11 years later. Healso served as a tutor in Kirkland House.

According to Brustein, Alfred was a uniquebreed.

"He was a medievalist who taught playwriting,so he was in two worlds simultaneously," Brusteinsaid. "There was no one else in the world whocould do both."

Among the plays he wrote were "Agamemnon," "TheCurse of an Aching Heart" and "Nothing Doing."

Alfred, also a published poet, received the NewYork Drama Desk Award and served on the poetrypanels for the Pulitzer Prize and National BookAward committees.

The Paper Chase, a novel-turned-movieabout Harvard Law School (HLS), may have neverbeen written if it were not for Alfred.

Alfred was a major influence for author John J.Osborn Jr. '67.

When he was in his third year at HLS, Osbornbegan writing The Paper Chase. He soughtacademic credit for the book and was told to findan adviser.

"I called Alfred up," Osborn said. "He said, `Idon't need to read the stuff, I'll take you rightnow.'"

"I showed him my first stuff, and he said,`Osborn, you are a genius. This is the best stuffI have ever seen,'" Osborn recalled.

Alfred proceeded to make a few changes, andOsborn, who was thrilled at Alfred's enthusiasm,spent the next weekend working on the novel.

"The next week, I took them back to him,"Osborn said. "He said, `Boy I'm glad you did this.This stuff is acceptable now.'"

Alfred then said that if he had been honest thefirst time, Osborn would never have finished thenovel.

After Osborn completed the book, he askedAlfred whether his work could be published.

"He said, `Yes, but you're not really ready forit,'" Osborn said.

But Osborn decided that if there was potentialfor publication, he was going to try for it--andAlfred offered the names of three majorpublishers.

The book was bought within a week.

Osborn has always given Alfred credit forhelping him with The Paper Chase, butAlfred always deflected the praise.

"I had a letter from him six months ago,"Osborn said. "He said, `Would you stop it? I neverdid anything to help.'"

Brustein remembers fondly when Alfred recentlygave the Spencer Lecture at Harvard, an event thathonors a person for work in the theater.

"He ranged freely over his career as a theaterperson in a very moving, but quiet lecture,"Brustein said. "There was something saintly andhallowed about it."

Osborn said his mentor was a wonderful man.

"He was funny; he was Irish; he was eccentric,"Osborn said. "He dressed like a gentlemen. He wasalways very formal. He was an exceptional,exceptional person.